There are several skills and activities that are important when coming up with great products.  In my last article, I argued for the absolute necessity of having good data about how our products are actually being used.

But in the this article I want to argue that the single most important thing product owners can do to add value to their team, their product and their company is a user test.

A user test is when we put the product (or product idea in the form of a prototype – either user prototype or live-data prototype) in front of our target customer and gauge their response.

There are two parts to every user test, and they need to be carried out in this order:

1. Determine if the user can figure out how to use the product.

2. Determine if the user would actually buy, or choose to use, the product, and if not, what it would take to do so.

The first part is a usability test.  It is pretty straightforward to do – not hard to do yet the learnings come quick.  But consider this the warm-up.

After the usability test, the user now understands what the product is trying to do and how it is intended to help, so you are all primed and ready for the moment of greatest learning, which is the second part: the value test.

Getting users to actually choose to use or buy a product is our ultimate test, and the purpose of the value test is to determine if we’ve met that test.  Most of the time we haven’t.  But now you’re in a position to learn what you could do to change that.

What makes a product owner useful to his company and team is attending every one of these user tests.   To me it is absolutely inconceivable and inexcusable for the product owner to not be at every one of these tests.  If at all humanly possible, the lead designer and lead engineer should be at every one of these tests as well.

The product owner typically is there to observe during the usability test (if you have a user researcher they typically drive this portion, and if not, the designer typically drives), but then during the value test the product owner is there to drive the discussion.  Don’t leave that user until you have figured out the answer to the question: “what would it take to get this person to actually buy this product?”

The final point I’ll make is that you want to be very open to the pivot.  In fact, the fastest and most consistent way I know of to discover potential big-win pivots is through these face-to-face user tests.  You may realize you have the wrong target customer or user; you may realize that you’re solving the wrong problem for that user; you may realize you have the wrong monetization strategy; or you may realize you have the wrong approach in your solution.

Mostly we do these user tests using a user prototype, but you can also use your current live product, a live-data prototype, or even a competitor’s live product.

I warn teams that the worst day on the project is usually the first day you actually do user testing.  But it gets better quickly.  Start by doing at least three user tests a week.  Don’t make any really dramatic decisions until you’ve tested on at least a dozen users.

If you haven’t yet done this type of user testing, you are very likely in for some big surprises.  But the sooner you jump in, the sooner you’ll learn what you need to do in order to capably steer your product.

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